Mathematically it was not a "must win" game for the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday night in San Jose but it sure felt that way as the Whitecaps took the pitch. Three consecutive losses in both MLS and CONCACAF Champions League action along with the dooming "win and we are in" moniker seemed to give fans higher expectations for this match against the Earthquakes.
There were a couple of changes that the Whitecaps needed to execute on the day in order to truly show some improvement over their recent outings. It was imperative for the Whitecaps' defensive ranks to regain the solidity demonstrated earlier in the season to guarantee a win away from home and thusly, ensure a trip to the 2015 playoffs. Secondly, the Blue and White needed to show better decision-making in the final third. The creativity that charmed us in August made a disappearing act in September and it is crucial for it to reappear in October if this team has any hopes of making a long run in the post-season.
Did the Whitecaps execute either of these keys to the match? I will get it to that in a second. First, I want to highlight an interesting tactical shift that Carl Robinson implemented for this match. While staying faithful to his beloved 4-2-3-1 formation, the Welsh tactician deployed a small but relevant change. Robinson sent Kekuta Manneh out in what we are used to seeing as the number 10 role. The twist here is that the young Gambian did not necessarily play in the creative offensive midfielder role. Manneh played more as a complement for Octavio Rivero as a false nine, a media punta, a trequartista, if you will.
The adjustment showed immediate dividends for the Whitecaps as the Blue and White played an almost perfect road half. In addition to the personnel change, the Whitecaps demonstrated a higher tempo of the game, high pressure that suffocated the Earthquakes and magnificent off the ball movement by a rather fluid front four composed of Rivero, Manneh, Techera and Rosales.
Manneh and Rivero started to gain great understanding of their roles allowing Manneh to run forward when the Uruguayan dropped deeper to play the ball and vice versa. Cristian Techera remained floating freely in the final third finding pockets of space that made it difficult for the Earthquakes to remain organized. Rivero looked more lively than in his last three or four appearances. The Whitecaps' efforts were rewarded when Techera opened the scoring at the 39th minute after a combination of composure and good fortune allowed the tiny Uruguayan to float a ball into the back of Bingham's net.
It was all well and good going to the locker room. The defense looked as solid as always, the Laba-Koffie pairing was bossing the midfield and the creative juices were starting to flow in the attack. Alas, the same story did not repeat itself in the second half as the team came back from the locker room looking a bit gassed and unable to continue with the high pressure that had proven so effective in the first 45 minutes.
The Earthquakes started to level the play and shortly after they also leveled the score due to an uncharacteristic mistake by Danish goalkeeper David Ousted who left a gift for Chris Wondolowski who made no mistake and squared things off at the 62nd minute.
Carl Robinson decided that he was not settling for a draw and sent captain Pedro Morales to the pitch with the hopes that the Chilean would be able to reach into the hat and pull out a magical ball to give the lead back to the Whitecaps once again. However, the Maestro never looked comfortable on the pitch and his participation lasted for only 19 minutes after aggravating that thigh injury again. He was replaced by Jordan Smith in the dying minutes of the match.
Finally, in the last play of match, the Whitecaps had a glorious opportunity to win the game after Kekuta Manneh found himself in a breakaway situation with Cristian Techera next to him and only goalkeeper Bingham guarding the Earthquakes goal. In true Manneh fashion, Manneh was betrayed by a last touch that was much too heavy and made it far too easy for Bingham to make the save.
So, the Whitecaps did not win the match, they did not book their trip to the playoffs. Yet. The Whitecaps did not lose the match (an improvement over the last three), they showed better defensively (for the most part) and they demonstrated better ideas going forward. However, this team continues to fail to play the same quality of football demonstrated throughout most of the season. When we add injury woes by Morales and Mezquida and suspension issues with Beitashour and with other players one yellow card away from suspension, the last three games of the seasonwill be very, very complicated for the Blue and White.
I am not pressing the panic button yet. But my hand is firmly on it. Failing to win on Wednesday against Dallas will make me push it frantically.